I ENJOY wine with most things – but certainly not with a hint of pretence, aged in pompous lingo, with an after-taste of condescending snobbery. I'd find that most unpalatable.
Unfortunately, some wine cellars and tours believe in attracting clientele fond of that staid old recipe. I prefer my wine with a barrel of laughs and a refreshing bouquet of young exuberance.
On a recent visit to the Margaret River region of Western Australia, I discovered two companies bringing fresh approaches to wine appreciation and education.
A few hours spent in either's company is worth bottling.
WINE FOR DUDES
JOHN O'Connor doesn't own a vineyard, isn't a chief winemaker and doesn't pretend to be a wine aficionado.
But since his arrival in Margaret River from New Zealand 11 years ago, he has had his hands dirty and his palate working overtime in virtually every aspect of the winemaking process – from planting and pruning to being a self-confessed barrel thief (taste-testing from the barrel at various stages of the winemaking process). And John is an affable and funny guy, which has helped him amass a diverse range of friends and colleagues, who are experts in the industry.
Together, they can talk endlessly about the winemaking process and quality of the Margaret River (MR) products with those who want to – or simply allow you to stand back, drink in the goodness and make up your own mind.
So, when he promised novices and connoisseurs alike that they'd enjoy fine wines and gourmet food tastings with more than a drop of fun in his quirky Wine For Dudes tour, you could be sure he would deliver. On any given day, tourists will be taken to three of more than 30 on John's favourites list – plus one of about six breweries. Two food and gift stops include the Margaret River Chocolate Company and perhaps others for cheese, olive oil and venison.
Within minutes of joining the minibus, we learn that the presence of marri and jarrah trees in the area has built up excellent soil for growing grapes.
Wine researcher Dr John Gladstones first noticed the similarities between Margaret River and the world-renowned Bordeaux winemaking region in France in 1962 – and Vasse Felix planted the first vines five years later. But the industry really took off in the Margaret River 10 years later, in 1975. The even, Mediterranean-style climate, few frosts and great sunshine during the growing season all do their bit to produce world-class grapes.
As we complete our first taste-tests in crystal glasses at Windows Estate (named after the nearby surf break), owner and winemaker Barb Davies assures first-timers, “You'll either like it (each wine) or you don't. It's no mystery. At the end of the day, it's just a drink.”
But she still had a few surprises up her sleeve, including the 2009 Sparkling Merlot: “We're the only winery in the Margaret River to offer this – not as heavy as a sparkling shiraz”. And then there was the 2010 Ellie Rose, served with a rosé iceblock. By the time we arrive at Hay Shed Hill, the '80s music singalong has already started up the back of the bus. Cellar door assistant and winemaker Aaron Paganoni introduces us to some of the types of wine the Margaret River does exceptionally well – semillon sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon – from the 20 wines available for tasting in the Hay Shed Hill Vineyard Series and Pitchfork Wines.
As well as enjoying a picnic lunch of local gourmet products under the peppermint trees, we take part in the tour's exclusive wine-blending experience, using cabernet sauvignon and shiraz.
Cabernet sauvignon, which originates in Bordeaux, is the most popular grape variety planted in Margaret River. Shiraz, called syrah where it originates in the Rhone region of south-eastern France, is known for its juicy and fruity red berry flavours and aromas but the Margaret River version is not as dramatically big or “jammy” as its South Australian counterparts. The cab shiraz or shiraz cab is a traditional Australian blend, where the fleshiness of the shiraz complements the body and structure of the cab sauv for a flavoursome red wine.
While a 63% cab sauv and 37% shiraz is the recommended blend, our job is to mix our own percentages, taste and come up with a winner we like for ourselves.
Most of us prove to be a little heavy-handed one way or another, but we down the finished products with gusto, nonetheless.
Saracen Estates opened its doors to the public two years ago, but the family atmosphere at the picturesque winery has seen its popularity soar for leisurely lunches on the veranda – and wedding ceremonies and receptions.
Although the vines were only planted there about eight years ago and the vineyard produces a tiny 60 tonnes of grapes a year (compared with, say, 10,000t at Evans & Tate), Saracen has proven it is the giant-killer of the region.
Using the best of modern technology combined with age-old traditions, chief winemaker Bob Cartwright has crafted wines that already have won gold regionally.
Later, basking in the afternoon sunshine on the lawns of the 15-year-old Bootleg Brewery (the oldest micro-brewery in the region and our final stop for a cleansing ale), I find myself thinking about the tour's cheesy name and how, this day, Wine for Dudettes would have been more apt – given that 15 of the 17 passengers were beautiful, 20-something women.
But there was no denying the fun we'd had.
Wine For Dudes is a real corker.
ARAVINA Estate is one of the Margaret River wineries where visitors of all ages are encouraged to linger longer.
Day or night, visitors have plenty of reason to embrace their surroundings. They can stroll the magnificent garden, with its masses of pink and blue hydrangeas – and perhaps glimpse a wedding ceremony by the lake.
Visitors can throw down a tartan picnic blanket on the manicured lawns with a vista of the vineyard, while their kids enjoy the European-designed playground nearby. They can enjoy a great coffee, milkshake or fresh juice, cake or light lunch in the Ralph Lauren-style setting of the café that brings spring indoors all year round. They can talk wines for hours with the cellar door staff and find a pantry gift or perfect piece of artwork in the gallery.
And they can spend a romantic summer evening in the black-and-white, Hamptons-seaside chic of the restaurant – savouring the delights of the menu crafted by head chef Simon Morley-Smith.
We certainly took our time over our sensational feast: bruschetta piled high with Hamelin Bay blue swimmer crab topped with shrimp crab shell mayo and fries salad for entrée; the pan-fried salmon, pea puree, potato croquettes, grilled asparagus and orange butter; or the cold and light Malaysian-style noodle salad with lots of fresh shredded vegies and a chilli kick for mains; and double-choc crème brulee or asiette of citrus (lime and ginger brulee, lemon ice cream in a brandy-snap basket and mandarin sorbet) for dessert.
Having done a taste-test earlier, we chose to wash down our meal with a 2010 Aravina Estate Chardonnay – a good example of the MR chardonnays. Privately owned by seventh-generation West Australian Stephen Tobin, the estate formerly known as Amberley and established in 1986, has been reinvigorated by a major renovation.
Under the guidance of general manager and 25-year Margaret River vigneron and winemaker Michael Kelly, the vineyard uses some of the world's most innovative practices to ensure minimal chemical sprays are used on pests.
Aravina Estate's 2010 Vermentino is the first commercial release vermentino in WA.
GOOD TO KNOW
Wine For Dudes: The tour features door-to-door pick up and drop off. Phone John O'Connor on 0427774994. Visit Wine For Dudes for more information.
Aravina Estate: On the corner of Wildwood and Thornton rds, Yallingup. Phone (08) 97501111. Visit Aravina Estate for more information.
The Margaret River Visitor Centre is in the Margaret River township on the corner of the Bussell Hwy and Tunbridge St. Phone (08) 97805911.
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